Getting the most out of generational differences, part two

Knowledge transfer between different generations can help develop talent and boost engagement of both younger and older workers

There are many myths about generational differences in the workplace. But, as part one in this series unearthed, the evidence consistently points to there being little to no difference between generations on a range of workplace factors such as motivation, attitudes, values and job satisfaction.

However, there is one very important area where people do vary significantly between different generations and at different ages: experience. Experience can only be gained through time and practice at work. Instead of being a limitation for HR development, this experience differential actually provides an opportunity for developing talent and boosting engagement with both younger and older workers.

Many organisations are facing serious challenges when it comes to succession planning, with some forecasting that up to 90% of their middle and senior leaders will leave the workforce within the next 10 years. While some of these workers report counting down the days to retirement, many wish to continue working with reduced hours or more flexible schedules.

The opportunity should be obvious: coaching and mentoring schemes, or options for job-sharing arrangements between newer and veteran employees structured around knowledge transfer outcomes.

An example

Consider the experience of an employee in a government department. The vast majority of employees in their department are older workers nearing or past retirement age. They are experienced, and have soft skills, excellent work networks and knowledge of the company culture. One of the workers retires and takes out a full government pension.

In a desperate attempt to fill the role the department offers this person part-time work (as much or as little as desired) as a stop-gap to ensure work is completed. The employer is now essentially paying double (full retirement and wages) for this work. It is a short-term solution that exacerbates the long-term problem. There is no succession planning and no long-term training and development strategy for younger workers.

The solution should be obvious but it takes more planning for an already overstretched department. Instead of contracting the retiree to do the same work as before, hire them to train someone new. Better yet, put a job-sharing arrangement in place so they can start training and mentoring their successor. Workers in these situations often enjoy the financial arrangement, but actually report being demotivated by the waste of resources and the entrenchment of current problems related to talent shortages.

This type of job-sharing programme combined with mentoring is a more efficient use of resources, and boosts engagement for both parties. The newer employee will better develop the skills needed to do the job, with the seasoned expert able to pass along their insider knowledge of the organisation and role.

The solution

So why not build ‘training one’s successor’ into a retirement plan? It acknowledges the value of the employee and identifies all of the useful skills and knowledge they have and could share.

The value of older employees beyond just their original role is often overlooked by employers as they move towards the later stages of their career. However, as well as being valuable employees, they also have an opportunity to pass on their extensive knowledge and ensure that every trick learned over a lifetime of work can be valuable to someone else (assuming the soon-to-be retiree is not disengaged, demotivated and eager to leave).

This type of arrangement can also be incredibly motivating for the new employee. It is a more sophisticated and valuable type of onboarding than simple orientation sessions. It is a fast track into being an insider. It is also an excellent way to foster a longer-term retention strategy with the (allegedly) fickle younger workforce.

Cultivating that sense of belonging, being given inside knowledge, gaining unique or specialised information, and having a trainer or mentor, reinforces the advantages of staying in that organisation over the long term. It can be an extraordinarily powerful way to kick-start employee motivation early, create a sense of connection with the company, improve organisational commitment and reduce turnover. The reason many people do not see themselves working for a company for an extended period is because it has failed to demonstrate that loyalty is a viable career trajectory.

When people in different age groups are seen as separate groups, to be divided up and managed differently, the results are ineffective and often counter-productive. The greatest value for HR is seeing how connecting and bringing the generations together can add value for both the individuals and the company.

Ian MacRae is director of High Potential and co-author of Myths of Work

Read part one of this series, covering false generational stereotypes